Crossing Obamacare

The Christian faith of Hobby Lobby’s sole owners, the Green family, is as ubiquitous as the Christian pop songs on the chain’s satellite radio station. All stores close on Sundays, and full-page newspaper ads quoting scripture have become a tradition on Christian holidays. Mardel, a smaller chain under the same ownership, specializes in Christian merchandise.

“We’re stewards of a business that is not ours. We believe that it is God’s,” said Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, in an April 15 speech upon accepting an award from the National Bible Association.

The ACA, otherwise known as Obamacare, mandates that companies with more than 50 employees must provide insurance with full coverage for emergency contraception or face tax penalties as a consequence. Hobby Lobby contends the requirement violates religious freedom since the corporate ownership believes that morning-after and week-after pills cause abortions.

In September, Hobby Lobby filed a federal suit and began seeking an injunction against the penalty, which the company estimated would be $1.3 million a day. No injunction has been granted. While Hobby Lobby initially indicated it would pay the fines, its attorneys later found a way to delay the deadline for the requirement.

“These abortion-causing drugs go against our faith, and our family is now being forced to choose between following the laws of the land the we love or maintaining the religious beliefs that have made our business successful,” David Green, founder and CEO, said in a written statement announcing the suit.
The Green family declined to be interviewed for this story.

Corporate sentinel
Hobby Lobby’s stance has generated its share of criticism. Several high-profile medical groups dispute the claim that emergency contraceptives can cause abortions. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief along with 10 religious organizations challenging the case on legal grounds, and a Christian activist group gathered thousands of signatures on a petition condemning the company.

David Green

At the same time, however, Hobby Lobby’s legal crusade has become a rallying point for religious leaders found everywhere from Fox News to Facebook.

Joseph Grabowski, a Philadelphia resident, decided to show his support for Hobby Lobby by creating a Facebook event for “Hobby Lobby Appreciation Day,” which he styled after a similar initiative that former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee had taken for Chick-fil-A. By the end of the unofficial holiday in January, Hobby Lobby’s designated day had about 66,000 people “attending” with 100,000 invited.

“This remained, from the beginning to the present, a grassroots initiative,” said Grabowski, who is Roman Catholic.

Much of the support for it arrived after an endorsement from Huckabee himself. Grabowski had sent the ex-Arkansas governor a Facebook message promoting the event. Before Grabowski heard anything back, Huckabee had posted a public statement of support.

“The Obama administration insists that companies like Hobby Lobby bow their knees to the God of government health care mandates,” Huckabee wrote, “even when those mandates are a clear and direct contradiction to their personal beliefs of faith.”

Hobby Lobby is being legally represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington D.C. nonprofit. Its lawyers declined an interview, but the organization’s website lists seven active lawsuits they have against the contraceptive mandate.

It was through their public relations office that prominent evangelical pastor Rick Warren released a statement on behalf of Hobby Lobby.

Mike Huckabee
credit: Gage Skidmore

“This case is nothing less than a landmark battle for America’s first freedom, the freedom of religion and the freedom from government intervention in matters of conscience,” Warren said. “I predict that the battle to preserve religious liberty for all, in all areas of life, will likely become the civil rights movement of this decade.”

The fight for religious liberty was also a key part of a supporting brief filed by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.

“The very last thing we would want to propose is to impose what we believe to be truth on someone else,” Archdiocese spokeswoman Tina Dzurisin said.

Pulpit politics

The suit has entered political rotation, with Hobby Lobby and The Becket Fund promoting — if not having sought out — support from state and national politicians.

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, joined Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and seven other senators to endorse an amicus brief claiming the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993 should apply to Hobby Lobby, even though initial statements from the courts deemed it only applicable to “individuals” in the human sense of the word.

“This judicially created carve-out is directly contrary to one of the primary reasons Congress enacted RFRA in the first place: to prevent … picking and choosing whose exercise of religion is protected and whose is not,” the brief reads.

U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton disagreed. In denying a preliminary injunction for Hobby Lobby, he said there is enough legal precedent to cast doubt on the success of the Greens’ arguments. Because the corporation is the most directly affected party in the lawsuit, it would need to have the same rights as people.

“Corporations have constitutional rights in some circumstances, such as the right to free speech, but the rights of corporate persons and natural persons are not coextensive,” Heaton said.

State Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a staunch foe of Obamacare, takes issue with that reasoning. He said Hobby Lobby is a “closely held” company, and that courts should recognize that.

“We believe a corporation can possess sincere religious beliefs,” he told Oklahoma Gazette. “This is, in my estimation, religious persecution.”

Scott Pruitt

He also filed a brief claiming the court had erred in distinguishing between “nonprofit religious organizations” and “for-profit secular businesses.” Pruitt’s larger goal was to make the case for expanding corporate rights to include religion.

“It sounds like the government, to me, is saying you have free exercise as long as you don’t conflict with the government, and that’s wrong,” he said.

A chosen path
For years, Hobby Lobby stuck to less contentious ways of demonstrating its religious faith. It donated to religious schools and camps. The Green family purchased a large collection of Bible antiquities and currently is in the process of building a museum for it in Washington, D.C.

The company’s philanthropy — along with how it treats retail employees and customers — prompted the National Bible Association in April to present Steve Green with an award for religion in business.

“He and his family are living their lives the way they believe, and that is godly,” said Richard Glickstein, the association’s president.

As for what factors might have led Hobby Lobby to stake out a controversial position in court, one observer suggests it might have to do with a specific business mindset.

In general terms, there was a fundamental shift to service-sector jobs shortly before Hobby Lobby was founded in 1972, according to Bethany Moreton, author of the book To Serve God and Walmart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. With more person-to-person interaction, lines separating the workplace from private life began to blur.

“You have a different kind of commitment when you understand your work to be for and about other people, rather than for an assembly line,” said Moreton, who teaches history at the University of Georgia.

In the American Bible Belt, newly empowered workers changed the shape of business from the bottom up as revived evangelicalism took hold and mega-retail chains — such as Hobby Lobby and Walmart — began their ascent.

What happens next is clear only through May 23, when the entire U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments on Hobby Lobby’s request for an injunction.

So far, court decisions have taken issue with some of the company’s key legal arguments, said University of Oklahoma law professor Joseph Thai.

“That’s the writing that’s coming out of the district court and that the 10th Circuit is, at least preliminarily, sending,” he said. “But you can never tell until the ink is dry.”

Joseph Thai

This type of case can bounce between courts for years, Thai added. At a certain point, it becomes a matter of finances for the plaintiff. But Hobby Lobby’s end goal seems to be clear: a hearing before the United States Supreme Court.

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Peter Wright

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